A Gay Couple Accuses the Denver Housing Authority of Persecution

Around midnight, there was a pounding at the door of the brick two-story rental house near City Park where Todd and Stan Lobato-Wright lived with their nine-year-old adopted son. It was the Denver police. They’d come to arrest the two men. Their alleged crime? Not drugs or robbery or murder. Rather, they were accused of lying about their relationship in order to collect more than $160,000 in Section 8 housing benefits over the previous eleven years.

“In the wee hours of the morning, they bring in this huge, bus-sized paddy wagon to put us in,” says Todd, who now uses a wheelchair due to a rare degenerative bone disorder that makes it difficult and painful for him to move around. “There’s lights flashing. It’s a very quiet area. It caused a lot of concern, people standing outside watching us get arrested.” Before being taken to jail, Todd called his mother, who rushed over to stay with the couple’s young boy.

The Denver District Attorney’s Office eventually charged Todd and Stan with a combined forty counts of felony theft, claiming that they had misrepresented their relationship by portraying themselves as a disabled person and his aide rather than same-sex partners.

“I thought, ‘This is crazy. This is madness. It must be some mistake,’” Todd says of the arrests, which took place in July 2011. “I thought it was a big misunderstanding.”

That’s because Todd and Stan say they had always been open about their relationship, telling the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) from the start that they were partners. As their partnership grew, they adopted a son and changed their last names to Lobato-Wright so that the entire family would have the same surname. They say they informed the DHA of all of it. For nearly a decade, they say, no one from the housing authority or the federal government, which provides the funding for the Section 8 benefits that the DHA administers, expressed a problem with their situation.

But for all of the couple’s honesty, the DHA says, Todd and Stan failed to regularly report one very important piece of information: Stan’s income. If they had, the agency says, they wouldn’t have been eligible to receive Section 8 benefits at all for ten of the eleven years they received them. For several years, Stan made more than $90,000, according to a chart prepared by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General, which investigated the case; that information was provided to Westword by the DHA. In those years, Stan was working two jobs. He worked for the City of Denver as an employment counselor, and he got paid through a state Medicaid program to take care of Todd.

Todd and Stan claim that they did report Stan’s income but that the DHA told them it wasn’t necessary. The reason goes back to March 2000, when Todd and Stan went to the DHA office to sort out some paperwork. The couple had recently moved to Denver from Colorado Springs, where Todd received housing assistance through the Section 8 voucher program, which helps low-income families and people with disabilities pay rent and utilities. Todd qualified for Section 8 because of his bone disorder, an inherited condition that had become so debilitating that he could no longer work. Over time, Stan, his partner since 1986, had become as much a nurse as a boyfriend.

“I thought, ‘This is crazy. This is madness. It must be some mistake.’”

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At the DHA office, Todd filled out several forms. He says he told the worker who was helping them that he and Stan were partners, but when it came time to check the marital-status box, there was no option for same-sex partners. The choices were “single,” “married,” “separated,” “divorced” and “widowed.” The DHA worker told him to mark “single,” he says. “She said I was technically single because we weren’t married and Colorado didn’t recognize our relationship.”

Todd says he also explained that Stan was his caregiver in addition to being his partner. The worker then left the room, Todd and Stan say, and came back with yet another form. It was a request that Stan be allowed to live with Todd as his “live-in aide.”

“We did what she told us to do and signed the form,” Todd says.

Eleven years later, the police came knocking.

To this day, the DHA contends that Todd and Stan “improperly received housing assistance payments...as a result of improperly reporting their family composition.” The problem is that a live-in aide is defined by the DHA as someone who is essential to the care of a disabled person but is not obligated to support him and who wouldn’t be living with him “except to provide the necessary support services.” Because a live-in aide is not considered a “family member,” the aide’s income isn’t included for the purposes of figuring out how much rental assistance that person gets.

“If Stan Lobato-Wright had been properly reported as a family member rather than a live-in aide, his income would have been included in the family’s annual income when determining eligibility,” DHA spokeswoman Stella Madrid writes in an e-mail to Westword.

But Todd and Stan say that when they signed that paperwork back in 2000, before civil unions or gay marriage were legal, they were told that they weren’t a family — at least not the kind of family that was recognized by the government. “They made the argument that we were trying to hide something because we didn’t get married,” Stan says. “We couldn’t get married.”

The charges against them were eventually dropped — although not before Stan had to face a criminal trial, which ended in a mistrial. Todd and Stan are now suing a DHA attorney, Gerritt Koser. They allege that he maliciously made false statements to the Denver District Attorney’s Office in an attempt to encourage the DA to prosecute them for Section 8 fraud.

Todd Lobato met Stan Wright nearly thirty years ago at the Hide N Seek Complex, a legendary gay bar in Colorado Springs that closed for good ten years ago. It was quarter-drink night, and the place was packed. “For me, it was love at first sight,” Todd says. “I’m a short, little Hispanic brown-eyed guy. He’s tall, blond and blue-eyed. I immediately made a connection.”

They moved in together a few months later. Todd, a Colorado Springs native who’d taken some college business courses, worked as the manager of a mall arcade and then at IBM. But by the late ’80s, he had to quit. His bone disorder, called familial multiple epiphyseal dysplasia, had gotten so bad that he could no longer work. The disorder is closely related to muscular dystrophy, and it affects cartilage and bone development, causing joint pain and limiting movement in the elbows and hips. With help from his father, from whom he’d inherited the disorder, Todd applied for disability, Medicaid, Medicare and Section 8 housing benefits.

But that wasn’t his only medical problem. In 1989, Todd was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS and given two years to live. “I was very young,” Todd says, “and I was not ready to die.”

Stan was also HIV-positive, but his illness had not progressed to the point that Todd’s had. He took care of Todd, who defied the doctors’ predictions and got better. Although he still has HIV, he beat back AIDS. “Stanley helped bring me back from the grave,” Todd says.

But the combination of the two conditions meant that Todd needed ongoing help. He signed up for a Medicaid program that provides home-based care for people with disabilities, but it was hard to find caretakers. “The ladies would come in and do dishes and cry and pray with masks and rubber gloves on,” Todd recalls. “They knew my diagnoses, and they were very afraid.”

A disability-rights group told Todd and Stan about a possible solution: Stan could become a certified nursing assistant and get paid through Medicaid to be Todd’s caretaker. The chart from HUD’s investigation indicates that Stan earned $29,670 in 2000.

That same year, because Todd was still undergoing treatment for HIV, the couple decided to move to Denver to be closer to his infectious-disease specialist. They “ported in” from the Colorado Springs Housing Authority to the Denver Housing Authority with a voucher for a three-bedroom house: one bedroom for Todd, who sleeps in an adjustable hospital bed; one bedroom for Stan; and one bedroom for the exercise equipment that Todd’s doctors consider medically necessary for him to do physical therapy for his disorder.

But there were a few issues, including a potentially unsafe basement window in the house in Bonnie Brae that Todd and Stan wanted to rent, a problem with how much the landlord wanted to charge, and some paperwork that had been lost in the transfer. The DHA called them in for an urgent meeting. It was at that meeting that they say the DHA worker instructed Todd to mark “single” on his application and told both of them to sign the live-in aide form.

They left thinking that everything had been taken care of.

Over the next ten years, Todd and Stan’s lives changed — and the men say they reported every part of it, never hiding their relationship from the DHA or trying to cover up their living situation.

In April 2002, their son, Seth, was born. Since same-sex adoption wasn’t legal at the time, Stan, who was employed, filed the papers. Meanwhile, Todd told the DHA about Seth and that he would be living in the house. He remembers that the agency needed proof, so he sent in a photo that had been taken at the hospital. The agency eventually increased Todd’s benefits to a four-bedroom voucher to allow for a bedroom for Seth, and the family moved to a bigger house.

“They made the argument that we were trying to hide something because we didn’t get married,” Stan says. “We couldn’t get married.”

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In 2005, the pair applied as a couple for the DHA HomeOwnership Program, which provides education and financial help to DHA participants who want to buy their own house. They’d been on a waiting list to apply for the popular program since 2000. As part of the process, they say, the DHA pulled both of their credit histories and income information and told them they didn’t qualify because they made too much money. That year, Todd earned $7,152 and Stan earned $51,146, according to HUD’s investigation.

But that determination didn’t affect Todd’s Section 8 benefits. DHA spokeswoman Madrid says that the HomeOwnership Program is separate from Section 8 and that “information reported to one program is not required to be shared with another program.” Todd continued to get rental assistance; in 2005, the DHA was paying about $1,400 per month to his landlord, according to HUD’s investigation. Todd’s name was the only name on the lease.

Stan continued to work outside of the home whenever Todd was well enough that he didn’t need round-the-clock help. He says it was a way to help support himself and to support Seth. But even then, he was providing care to Todd through the Medicaid program. He says he assisted him with dressing and bathing in the morning and evening, meted out Todd’s many medications and made sure he took them, prepared special meals to help his body absorb the drugs, and got up in the middle of the night to change the sheets if Todd soiled them.

The men say that they submitted Stan’s pay stubs and W-2 forms to the DHA but that the agency repeatedly told them it didn’t need that information. “They even sent it back one year with a yellow sticky note on it to tell us to stop sending them in,” Stan says.

The DHA disputes that Stan’s income was regularly reported; however, Madrid notes that because Stan continued to be listed as Todd’s live-in aide, the DHA wouldn’t have included his income in the calculation to figure out Todd’s Section 8 benefits anyway.

In 2008, Todd and Stan legally changed their last names to Lobato-Wright. The following year, they re-petitioned the court to adopt Seth as a same-sex couple, because so-called second-parent adoption had become legal. The adoption was finalized in late 2010. Todd says he provided documentation of the name change and adoption to the DHA.

None of those events ever set off an alarm bell with the DHA, though. It was another situation, one involving Todd’s mother, that eventually landed them in hot water.

In the summer of 2010, Todd’s mother moved from Colorado Springs to Denver. She also has a disability and receives Section 8 housing assistance. Todd began advocating for her to get certain accommodations and ended up in a heated confrontation with the DHA’s Section 8 director, Toni Manjarrez, and Koser, the housing authority’s associate attorney.

Two years later, during Stan’s criminal trial, Koser testified that he began working for the DHA in September 2010. Todd was one of the first people he dealt with, he said. “I don’t know if you ever deal with angry clients who just want to call you every five minutes,” he said in response to a question while he was on the witness stand. “That was Mr. Lobato.”

Todd was calling about his mother, but Koser told the court that he suspected that Todd was also a Section 8 participant. After confirming that, Koser said, he reviewed Todd’s records and became concerned. “I indicated to Toni that I believed that Mr. Stan Wright should be disqualified as live-in aide and should be classified as another adult or head of household,” he said.

Manjarrez also testified at the trial. She said that she audited Todd’s file and came to a similar conclusion. In December 2010, the DHA sent Todd a letter saying that his household “is now determined to be a domestic-partnership household,” according to court testimony.

Todd requested a hearing to contest the change to his Section 8 benefits, but in the end, he lost. In February 2011, the DHA terminated the family’s voucher.

But the trouble didn’t stop there. In May 2011, two investigators showed up at Stan’s office at a Denver city building, where he worked as an employment counselor for people receiving food stamps. Stan led them into his tiny office. One of the investigators was from HUD, and the other was from the Denver District Attorney’s Office. According to his arrest warrant, Stan told them that he and Todd had lived together as domestic partners for 25 years. Stan said he’d never heard of the term “live-in aide” but had been under the impression that his income was excluded from the calculation for Todd’s Section 8 benefits because he takes care of him. “No one else would do it if I didn’t,” the arrest warrant quotes Stan as saying. “He would be dead.”

But Stan says the investigators misinterpreted what he said, especially about him and Todd being domestic partners. “I told him, ‘We’ve been together about 25 years,’” Stan recalls. “Then he starts in with this domestic-partnership stuff. I told him we haven’t had a domestic partnership.” The City of Denver allows unmarried adults who are sharing the same household to enter into domestic partnerships, which creates a public record of the relationship. Stan says he always considered domestic partnership to be a “goofy law,” one that stopped short of true marriage.

But law enforcement officials concluded that there was enough evidence to move the case forward. Two months later, Todd and Stan were arrested. They were each charged with twenty counts of felony theft and single counts of forgery, conspiracy to commit theft and conspiracy to commit forgery. They spent three nights in jail before being released on two $10,000 bonds. “It was the worst three nights of my life,” Todd says. “We were treated like the scum of the earth.”

As soon as they were released, they say, they went to the public defender’s office to see if they qualified for free representation. They say they were told that because they weren’t married, they had to apply separately. Todd qualified because of his limited income, but Stan did not. On his application, Todd says, the staff at the public defender’s office told him to mark “single.”

Todd was scheduled to stand trial in Denver District Court first. But on the eve of his trial in October 2012, the DA’s office dropped the charges. “Due to the Defendant’s health, inability to find employment or repay any restitution for his criminal acts, it is not good use of judicial resources,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Joseph Morales wrote in a motion to dismiss the case.

But the DA’s office continued to pursue its case against Stan. His trial got under way in December 2012, more than a year after he’d been arrested. One of the key issues was whether Todd and Stan should have been considered a family under the DHA’s guidelines. Madrid says the agency has recognized same-sex relationships since 1999. But back in 2000, the official DHA definition of “family” was two or more adults “whose income and resources are available to meet the family’s needs and who are either related by blood, marriage, operation of law or who evidenced a stable family relationship over a period of six months.” That evidence could include joint tax returns, joint bank accounts, joint credit history, joint leases, or birth certificates of the couple’s children.

In 2012, HUD, which provides the funding for Section 8, amended the definition of family to explicitly include same-sex households. The new definition says “family” includes a group of people residing together “regardless of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status.”

On the stand, Koser testified that the DHA is allowed to use common sense to determine who is a family and who isn’t. One of Stan’s attorneys, Matt Connell, challenged him, asking where in the regulations it says that. Their exchanges got confrontational, according to the trial transcript.

"That’s really what prosecutors were trying to argue: Although we forbid people [who are] same-sex from getting married, they committed fraud by not telling everybody that they’re a family."

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Stan took the stand in his own defense. Todd testified, too. They told the jury about how they were called in to the DHA office in 2000 and given several forms, and how they filled them out as instructed. At no time, Todd testified, did the DHA say that he and Stan were a “family” — not when he sent in Seth’s birth certificate, not when he submitted the name-change paperwork, and not when he gave the DHA a copy of Seth’s final adoption decree.

At one point during the trial, Stan’s attorneys showed the jury three framed photographs depicting the two fathers, shirtless, cradling a one-month-old Seth. “Were these photographs in your house at the time when the Denver Housing Authority officials would come and do their visit?” Stan’s other attorney, Liz Connell, asked Todd on the stand, referring to the annual inspections that DHA workers conducted of Todd and Stan’s home.

“Yes,” Todd said.

Her point was that Todd and Stan hadn’t hidden their relationship from the DHA or anyone else. It was the DHA that failed to classify them as a family, Stan’s attorneys argued.

“There’s no such thing as common-law same-sex marriage,” Matt Connell says now. “But that’s really what prosecutors were trying to argue: Although we forbid people [who are] same-sex from getting married, they committed fraud by not telling everybody that they’re a family.”

“All I do, as a consumer, [is] provide all of the documents that are required,” Todd says. “I don’t know if I qualify.” He and Stan say that some years, they probably could have afforded their rent without the Section 8 voucher. But the DHA kept providing it because the housing authority said Todd was entitled to it. “Administratively,” Todd says, “they categorized us wrong.”

In the eleven years that Todd and Stan lived in Section 8 housing, the laws around same-sex relationships changed. Second-parent adoption became legal in 2007, and in 2009, Colorado began allowing unmarried couples to enter into “designated beneficiary agreements” that gave them limited legal rights. Civil unions weren’t legalized until 2013. Gay marriage came a year later.

But at trial, Morales, the prosecutor, questioned Todd and Stan about whether they had misrepresented themselves to the DHA.

Morales: “You were a family with children, right?”

Stan: “Yes.”

Morales: “So you — ”

Stan: “In our heart — not by government definitions. The government doesn’t allow us to be defined as a family.”

Morales argued that it was a “complete and utter deception” when Stan signed the document classifying him as Todd’s live-in aide. They were really lovers, Morales said, and if they had told the truth, they wouldn’t have qualified to live in a four-bedroom house rent-free. On the re-certification forms Todd filled out every year to continue to receive Section 8 benefits, Morales pointed out, he identified Stan only as his “primary care provider” — not as his partner or the co-head of the household, as the DHA says he should have — and didn’t report Stan’s income. No family that makes $100,000 should get housing benefits meant for the poor, he said.

“This is a case about milking the system,” Morales told the jury during opening statements.

In the end, the jury couldn’t come to a unanimous decision. During deliberations, they sent a question to the judge: “Are we to apply the definition for family...for the years 2000-2010?” The judge told them that the resolution of that issue was up to them. The trial ended in a mistrial.

Before Stan’s second trial, in April 2013, the DA dropped the charges against him, as well.

“The homophobic undercurrent in this case really disturbed me."

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Two months later, Todd and Stan left Colorado. They moved with Seth to Desert Hot Springs, California, a small city about a hundred miles east of Los Angeles. Stan, who lost his job with the City of Denver after his arrest, found work there. The couple no longer gets Section 8 benefits.

And they don’t want them. They’re wary of housing authorities ever since they say the DHA disrupted their lives, had them sent them to jail and then convinced the DA to put them on trial only to have the charges dismissed — charges that they think shouldn’t have been filed in the first place.

A Boulder attorney, Alison Ruttenberg, had heard about their case from Stan's trial lawyers. She told the trial lawyers that if Todd and Stan were interested in pursuing a civil lawsuit, she'd be interested in representing them. Todd and Stan eventually contacted her. “The homophobic undercurrent in this case really disturbed me,” she says.

District attorneys are immune to civil lawsuits, but individuals aren’t. So in October 2014, Todd and Stan filed a civil lawsuit against Koser, saying that he was behind the prosecution of them for fraud. “Koser knew that Plaintiffs were legally prohibited from getting married in Colorado...and that therefore, Stan was not a member of Todd’s ‘family,’” the complaint says.

The lawsuit also alleges that if Koser had told the truth about Todd and Stan disclosing to the DHA the proof of their name change, adoption and income, there wouldn’t have been a case.

But Koser’s attorney argues that it was the DA’s office, not Koser, that investigated and found probable cause to charge Todd and Stan with theft and forgery. Koser wasn’t even the person who brought the case to the DA, his attorney, Susan Stamm, wrote in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. “It is clear Plaintiffs are attempting to hold Defendant Koser vicariously liable for the alleged wrongful conduct of the Deputy DA,” Stamm wrote.

Koser declined to be interviewed for this story because of the pending lawsuit. Deputy DA Morales declined as well, citing the possibility that he may be called as a witness in the case.

A federal magistrate, meanwhile, has recommended that the malicious-prosecution case against Koser be allowed to move forward. (Todd and Stan originally sued Manjarrez and the DA’s investigator, as well, but neither was ever served, and both have been dropped from the complaint.) Koser’s attorney has objected to that recommendation. The judge has not yet ruled.

Todd and Stan don’t want what happened to them to happen to anyone else.

“We were always told for years that our relationships didn’t matter and didn’t count and to sign here and there, and we did that,” Stan says. “Now, with marriage equality coming into the picture, LGBT people need to be protected so prosecutors can’t go back and say, ‘Aha! You were a couple and we recognize that now, and we’re going to prosecute you.’”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the initial communication between attorney Alison Ruttenberg and Todd and Stan Lobato-Wright. Todd and Stan contacted Ruttenberg about filing a civil lawsuit.
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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar